After an imposing win over the Western Conference second seed Phoenix Suns, the Boston Celtics took the court against another aspiring NBA Finals contender on Friday night against a Brooklyn Nets in a battle of shorthanded teams. The Celtics played without Jaylen Brown (shoulder bursitis), Kemba Walker (rest) and Rob Williams (knee soreness), while the Nets continued to miss Kevin Durant (thigh contusion) and James Harden (hamstring). With so many absences, the game came down to a battle of attrition. On the second night of a back-to-back, despite a strong rally late in the fourth quarter, the Celtics just couldn’t quite overcome Brooklyn’s superior depth, losing 109-104.
Jayson Tatum led the way for the Celtics on the evening, scoring a game-high 38 points en route to a dominant performance. But apart from strong contributions from Marcus Smart (19 points) and Payton Pritchard (22, 6-of-7 from three), the Celtics struggled to find any other reliable contributors. Much to the contrary, the Nets overcame a quiet night from their one healthy superstar, Kyrie Irving (15 points on 4-of-19 shooting), and rode a strong 38-point bench effort and 39 points combined from Joe Harris and old friend Jeff Green to score the win.
After a mini-slump that saw him shoot just 3-of-17 from the field in consecutive games, Tatum rediscovered his scoring touch in the first quarter. He matched his field goal total from each of the previous two games with three buckets in the first five minutes, tallying nine early points and guiding the Celtics to a solid start in the Barclays Center.
The Celtics forced the issue against the Nets in the first quarter. A strong defensive effort helped keep Brooklyn’s offense out of rhythm, and they thrived in the paint against the Nets’ smaller lineups, including three first quarter offensive rebounds from Tristan Thompson. Though their offense was not exactly world-beating either, the tough defensive effort and cold start from Brooklyn was enough to power the Celtics to a 25-21 advantage heading into the second quarter.
Brooklyn quickly reestablished themselves in the second quarter, however. Sparked by seven points from young guard Bruce Brown, they ripped out a 12-0 run in the early minutes of the quarter to reclaim the lead. The run was exactly what the Nets’ offense needed; they continued to assert themselves against the Boston defense, raining a number of threes and extending their advantage as high as 14 points. Tatum continued his hot shooting, compiling a game-high 25 points at the half, but the Celtics still entered the break trailing by 9, 60-51.
The second half began with what was largely a standstill. The Celtics made some inroads offensively behind a red-hot Marcus Smart (12 points in the quarter), but Boston continued to struggle with sloppy turnovers (19 on the night) and the Nets feasted in transition as a result. They outscored the Celtics by a staggering 32-0 in fast break situations in the game, and that advantage helped them maintain a relatively static lead through much of the third quarter. The Celtics entered the final frame trailing by 15 points, 88-73.
As the fourth quarter kicked off, the Celtics looked like they just didn’t have the legs to keep up with the more rested Nets. Through much of the quarter, Brooklyn largely held them at arm’s length. With the clock counting down, however, Boston finally found some energy. They chipped away at Brooklyn’s double-digit lead, clawing back into the game to trail by just three points with 3:31 remaining in regulation after consecutive threes from Pritchard and Tatum.
Unfortunately, three points is as close as the Celtics would get. Coming out of a Steve Nash timeout, the Nets countered with a three-pointer from Harris to put themselves back in the driver’s seat. Brooklyn pushed their lead back up to eight points, and a series of Boston turnovers prevented the Celtics from evening things out once again. The game remained close through the closing seconds, but Boston was forced to play the intentional foul game, and the Nets ultimately held them at bay at the free throw line.
Next up, the Celtics travel to Charlotte for a matchup against Hornets this Sunday at 1 PM EST on ESPN.